Nov 09, 2022
By Austin Saalman
Effectively closing what had been a key year in glam rock, Lou Reed’s sophomore solo effort Transformer swiftly left its mark upon the face of popular culture, with the former Velvet Underground frontman introducing his grittily transgressive artistic sensibilities to a fresh decade. Despite having recorded four of the greatest albums in the history of rock music with his group, Reed’s increasingly volatile relationship with his bandmates and associates had eventually resulted in a falling out between he and one-time producer and promoter Andy Warhol in 1967, as well as the ousting of group co-founder John Cale the following year, before Reed’s own departure in 1970. Soon after, the mercurial, leather-jacketed urban poet from Brooklyn was introduced to burgeoning English glam rock sensation David Bowie, an early admirer of The Velvet Underground’s music. Reed and Bowie quickly developed a close working relationship, and in August 1972 the duo, alongside Bowie’s frequent collaborator Mick Ronson, entered London’s Trident Studios to record Reed’s second album.
Much like Bowie, Reed was something of an artistic chameleon throughout his career, his sound and persona perpetually evolving. This is especially apparent on the timeless Transformer, as we find Reed borrowing heavily from Bowie’s whimsically baroque signature glam rock sound, which had been presented to the world in its entirety that same year with the release of Bowie’s groundbreaking, star-making The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Transformer, while readily embracing the raw guitar rock he had frequently explored with the Velvets, is Reed’s official “glam” effort, as well as his critical and mainstream breakthrough as a solo act. Not lyrically dissimilar to The Velvet Underground’s output, Transformer continues Reed’s poetic explorations of New York City’s backstreets and cultural underground, telling of the city’s glamorous outcasts, eccentrics, addicts, and hopeless romantics, many of whom Reed met during his time at Warhol’s fabled avant-garde palace The Factory. Transformer represents a creative crossroads for Reed, with Bowie and Ronson’s presences complementing the notoriously bristly rocker’s often aggressive proto-punk leanings with flurries of strings, brass, and lively piano riffs. With Transformer’s release, Reed was swiftly elevated to the pantheon of major glam pioneers, seated comfortably among Bowie and Ronson, as well as the likes of Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, and Roxy Music.
Reed and Ronson’s lead guitars sting on the opening “Vicious,” the track’s lyrics drawn from a fateful conversation between the former and Warhol, who told him to write a song called “Vicious.” When Reed inquired as to what sort of “vicious” Warhol meant, the pop art godfather responded, “Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.” Naturally, Reed opens with, “Vicious/You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour/Oh baby, you’re so vicious.” The track is prime Reed, at once rebelliously hostile and smirkingly facetious as he sings, “Hey, why don’t you swallow razorblades?” Among the album’s heavier cuts, “Vicious” weds the best of Reed’s edgy Velvet Underground history with his romantic Bowie-guaranteed glam rock future. Subsequently, the hallucinogenic groove of “Andy’s Chest” opens with one of Reed’s most peculiar, yet beguiling poetic proclamations: “If I could be anything in the world that flew/I would be a bat and come swooping after you.” Inspired by feminist activist and visual artist Valerie Solanas’ infamous attempt on Warhol’s life in 1968, the track, in its blatant penetration of Reed’s previously impenetrable wall of punky defiance, possesses a certain floral-print whimsy, even in Reed’s ominous warning, “Well, you know what happens after dark…” Among Transformer’s more sensuous cuts, “Andy’s Chest” carries a stylish juxtaposition of anxiety and humor, courtesy of Reed, Bowie, and Ronson, that is more than enough to keep the listener attentive.
On the contrary, devastating piano ballad “Perfect Day” dampens the mood. Despite its seemingly upbeat lyrics detailing drinking sangria in the park, feeding animals at the zoo, and taking in a movie, the track’s dour piano and tragically cinematic strings suggest a greater sorrow at its core. Mid-way through the track, we find Reed in a moment of raw vulnerability as he confesses, “You made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/Someone good.” Despite being less elaborate than Reed’s future avant-garde heartbreakers “The Kids” and “Coney Island Baby,” “Perfect Day” is an exemplary avant-pop cut straight from the peak years of one of the genre’s key architects. Reed’s closing guarantee is especially haunting as he calmly assures the listener: “You’re going to reap just what you sowed.” Another brash glam rocker, “Hangin’ ‘Round” manages to be both snarling in its punkiness and irresistibly danceable, the track’s crunchy electric guitars accentuating its vintage rockabilly backbone. Side A closes with Reed’s notorious signature tune “Walk on the Wild Side,” an autobiographic acoustic ditty recounting Reed’s days at Warhol’s Factory and the various escapades of its colorful cast of “superstars,” including Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, “Little” Joe Dallesandro, Jackie Curtis, and Joe “Sugar Plum Fairy” Campbell. Through Reed’s casual references to oral sex, drug use, male prostitution, and gender nonconformity in New York’s underground, the track garnered a fair amount of moral controversy in its day, though it was not hindered from peaking at no. 16 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, remaining a staple of ’70s rock radio five decades on.
Opening Side B, the spacey sultriness of “Make Up” finds Reed returning to the rich avant-pop of “Andy’s Chest” and “Perfect Day,” before the utterly astounding “Satellite of Love”—Transformer’s key track—arrives seemingly out of nowhere. The rich, piano-driven pop anthem of heartache before the flickering TV tube casts Reed in a fresh light, or shadow. Seated before a television set as the launch of a satellite airs, the protagonist is aware of his girlfriend’s infidelities and that she is currently out with other men. As he views the footage upon the screen, his jealousy and heartache urge him to predict the very nature of the coming 21st century in the phenomenal lines, “Satellite’s gone way up to Mars/Soon it’ll be filled with parkin’ cars/I watched it for a little while/I love to watch things on TV.” These remain among Reed’s finest, most relevant lyrics, and “Satellite of Love” among his greatest songs. Elsewhere, the stomping “Wagon Wheel” revisits Reed’s scrappier Velvet Underground days. “Oh heavenly father, what can I do,” he pleads. “What she’s done to me is making me crazy.” The fever rises, only to cool with the arrival of the brief and amusingly Randy Newman-esque “New York Telephone Conversation.” Hard-rocking “I’m So Free” emphasizes Ronson’s guitar work and Bowie’s backing vocals, sounding something like a twice-removed cousin of the Ziggy track list. Despite his poetic bent, Reed was born an authentic rock idol, which is apparent on each of his releases, though especially on such tracks as this. The mellow “Goodnight Ladies” closes the album on a bittersweet note, with Reed sounding stoned out of his mind, the melody behind him nearly lopsided as he insists, “But now it’s time to get high/Come on, let’s get high.”
Such an insistence seems entirely faithful to the very essence of Transformer, which thrives upon its own hedonistic indulgence and inebriation, the peculiarly dreamt beauty of Reed’s urban fantasies as titillating, scandalous, and honest as they have always been. Reed enjoyed an illustrious 50-year career, influencing scores of artists from contemporaries such as Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Roxy Music, to Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Hope Sandoval, Kurt Cobain, Lana Del Rey, Liz Phair, Michael Stipe, Wayne Coyne, Julian Casablancas, and other next-generation punk and alt rock innovators. In the nine years since his death at age 71, Reed’s name remains indelible within the fabric of American popular culture, his transgressive dreamscapes of a gritty 1960s and ’70s New York as darkly humorous, witty, and honest as they were 50 years back.